In celebration of the 75th anniversary of the establishment of New Deal, Broward County Library’s Bienes Museum of the Modern Book is privileged to present an exhibition from its collection that examines:
WPA Children’s Books (1935-1943) by the Pennsylvania Writers’ Project, the New York City New Reading Materials Program, and the Milwaukee Handicraft Project
October 13-December 31, 2008
The ninety WPA children’s books on exhibit inform and explore literature and art published and created for young Americans during President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s (FDR) New Deal and Works Progress Administration (WPA).
Created in 1935, the WPA is perhaps the best known of the many government-sponsored programs FDR’s administration formed to help the nation lift itself out of the Great Depression and its aftermath.
The WPA created thousands of blue- and white-collar projects during its eight year history. Almost all, such as the Pennsylvania Writers’ Project, were administered by the Federal government and implemented at the state level with co-sponsors, but some, also with co-sponsors, were local undertakings created by municipalities such as the New York City New Reading Materials Program and the Milwaukee Handicraft Project of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
The adult unemployed, and the children of the unemployed, were ubiquitous and the most vulnerable. The books for children of the era not only served to amuse and divert attention from the hardships of daily existence, but they also sought to teach facts, history, morality, and justice by using narratives that entertained with simple and easy to understand texts, striking, unusual, and frequent illustrations, and arresting and intriguing graphic design.
WPA Pennsylvania Writers’ Project
The Pennsylvania Writers’ Project, a component of the Federal Writers’ Project, partnered with Albert Whitman & Company, an independent commercial Chicago publisher founded in 1919, to distribute its science titles for children. From 1939-1945, the Project hired idled authors, writers, scientists, editors, and other specialists to compose thirty-nine booklets that made up the Children’s Science Series (later re-named Elementary Science Readers and Easy Science Readers). The dust jacket blurbs stated that “everyday phenomena are to be explained with scientific accuracy, yet simply enough worded to interest readers in the third and fourth grades.” In addition, graphic designers, illustrators, and other artists from the Pennsylvania Art Project were commissioned to create the dust jacket art and interior illustrations. The Project was sponsored by the Division of Extension Education, Board of Education, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. All of the titles in the series, and the larger Bienes Museum WPA Federal Writers’ Project collection, were a gift of Jean Fitzgerald.
WPA New York City New Reading Materials Program
The purpose of the New York City New Reading Materials Program was to improve reading skills of the city’s youth. In a WPA NYC report for 1938, it was determined that “a considerable percentage of children find reading difficult. If their difficulty is not overcome in the low grades it will handicap them through life … Pictures and games make work into play and soon speed up a lagging mind.”
Unlike the Pennsylvania Writers’ Project, the New York City New Reading Materials Program did not partner with a commercial firm to publish its children’s books, although the Board of Education of the City of New York was its official government sponsor. Rather it self-published the approximately 200 titles in large editions using exceedingly inexpensive and unstable paper and ink. The few copies that survive, mostly in public and academic libraries of the Northeast and the Bienes Museum, are often badly damaged due to the brittle and acidic paper used in their production.
WPA Milwaukee Handicraft Project
The Milwaukee Handicraft Project came into being on November 6, 1935 with the purpose of producing “originally designed craft articles for use in tax-supported institutions.” It was sponsored by the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors and the Milwaukee State Teachers’ College and was considered important because it “put a value upon creative design by producing only original articles;” it “considered design and craftsmanship of equal importance;” and because it “produced articles that function in present-day society.”
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